They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
From ‘For the Fallen’ by Lawrence Binyon, 1914
Full of energy and, in his opinion, prematurely obliged to give up teaching because of retirement rules, Ted restlessly sought out a new challenge.
It was soon clear that a long journey was the best antidote to enforced idleness.
“We planned an expedition by simply drawing a line across the map of north-western Europe. Being familiar with Belgium and a part of West Germany, we started at Ostend and continued with an eye on including the Rhine valley and Austria. Our journey began on 1 May 1985. We drove to Dover and crossed on the Belgian ferry to Ostend. We immediately encountered a snag: President Reagan was visiting Cologne, which was to be our next port of call. We adjusted our route and made for Koblenz. Above the hotel on a cliff was a castle. Castles would be a common sight along the lovely Rhine valley.”
“After breakfast, we passed along the southern bank of the river. At St Goar, there was a halt for a snack to see the Lorelei, a rock on the east bank of the Rhine almost 400 feet above the river. After following the Rhine for a bit, we crossed the river to Karlsruhe and travelled on to Augsburg where we stayed for the night. Munich was avoided but we took time to visit Dachau, a pretty town with no outward sign of the notorious camp where tens of thousands had been worked to death, tortured or murdered. The last time I had been there in 1945, the city had been nothing more than a ruin. We crossed the Austrian border and arrived at Salzburg, known as the Florence of the north because of its extraordinary beauty. The car was parked in what had been the mine workings for salt (salz) after which the town is named. The first thing we saw was the beautiful Catholic cathedral. The hills were alive with the sound of music. There was an orchestra playing outside and the bells were ringing. In the distance were the Alps, still covered in snow. Salzburg is a wonderful town where Mozart had been born and an annual festival is held in August that attracts music-lovers from all over the world.”
It was a reminder of The Sound of Music which Pat and Ted loved and the family saw together in a Slough cinema in the 1960s. They continued to the south-west. It was a return to places Ted had known during his 10 months in the army of occupation after May 1945.
“We passed under the Hohe Tauern, the highest mountain range in Austria. The motorway continued into Carinthia, Austria’s southern-most province where I had been 40 years before. I returned to the lovely villages I had regularly visited at that time: Annenheim, Bohdensdorf and Sattendorf. I was disappointed that a new road had been cut and I had difficulty in finding my way. From there, we went to Villach, a town I had passed through in 1945 on my way home to the UK after two-and-a-half years’ service overseas. It was also the scene of one of my last big responsibilities when I set up a hot food point for Polish soldiers returning to their homeland in the winter of 1945 (mentioned in the 2nd Battalions’ war diaries). We found a decent hotel. The waiter was very kind and served a good meal. My German, still lingering in my memory after four decades, was standing up to the demands of the journey.”
“We left Austria for Italy by the Tarvisio pass, the exact route the London Irish had used going the opposite way on the first day of peace on 8 May 1945. The road was exactly as it had been 40 years previously. In Italy, we avoided the Autostrada, preferring to travel on the magnificent roads built during the Mussolini era in the 1920s and 1930s. This would allow us to see the country and meet the people more easily. We passed through Udine, another town briefly seen in 1945 after the Irish Brigade had broken through the Gothic Line on the River Po, and travelled on to Venice. Here we parked by the Lido and took the waterbus through the canals to St Marks, a simply lovely place rightly celebrated across the world. We remained on board as we were worried about the car. We need not have troubled. The car was probably considered to be too humble to interest thieves. The canals looked decayed and compared unfavourably with Amsterdam, sometimes called the Venice of the north. They smelt too. We spotted the Britannia and the Ajax, a British frigate. The Prince and Princess of Wales were visiting but they kept out of our way.”
“The next stop was Padua, the home town of St Anthony and a major pilgrimage centre, but we did not stay long and headed for the small town of San Angellina. We spotted a restaurant and entered. We were the only guests and we were given a warm welcome. My Italian was returning but not equal to mastering the menu and Pat was taken to the kitchen to choose her own food. After a sumptuous meal, Pat retired. I joined a party of local notables, drank too much wine and conversed in a mixture of Italian and English. After sad goodbyes next morning, we made our way through Bologna and headed to Florence. It had started raining but we were able to look around the city and cross the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio. I had seen it only in wartime and briefly. Now I could study the city at leisure in the company of Pat. Our schedule was pressing. The next major stop was Rome, but we stopped on the way at Siena as darkness fell. We had a brief tour of the ancient city famous for its annual horse race. Following the Via Cassia we passed Lake Bolsena, glistening in the morning sun. At a Buonconvento, we had an excellent breakfast in a trattoria.”
“We entered Rome by the Flavinia Gate and, after a hair-raising tour of the city, stopped at the Hotel Gloria in the Flaminia district. We stayed there for three days. We took the bus to the massive Victorrio Emmanuale memorial and spent a day walking around the historic sites. The next morning, we took the bus directly to San Michelo. Crossing the Tiber, we walked up the avenue to St Peter’s. The basilica was closed as Pope John Paul II was giving a public audience in the Piazza. We joined a queue and the guards let us through the barrier. We found seats within good sight of the Papal stage which was covered by an awning. The pope appeared and the audience lasted about two hours. He addressed the people in about a half dozen languages.”
It was a poignant moment for Ted. In June 1944, then a 25-year-old Colour Sergeant, he had been selected from the Irish Brigade for an audience with Pope Pius XII in the Vatican itself. He recalls that the brigade pipe band had played The Sash My Father Wore, an anthem of the anti-Catholic Orange Order. Pat and Ted then left Rome and headed south. They travelled down Route 6 through the Liri Valley and over the River Rapido. The road took them to Salerno where the Fifth Army had landed in September 1943. They then cut eastwards towards Campobasso in the Apennines, another location of Ted’s wartime adventures.
“It was there that I had spent Christmas 1944 in a Franciscan monastery. We travelled down the valley of the Biferno which emptied into an artificial lake. We soon arrived at the little port of Termoli where I had landed in September 1943 under a heavy shell bombardment. The cobbled quay where I had run up to shelter in a hotel was still intact. But the port itself was now a crowded marina. We stopped in a cafe by the quay where a lady told me she remembered Irish Brigade soldiers quite well. She had been a little girl when we landed.”
“We started travelling north along the Adriatic Coast. The road crossed the River Trigno where the Irish Brigade had grappled bloodily with the German army in October 1943. There were many unhappy memories of my time there including the muleteers under my command who had been killed by shelling and Major Kevin O’Connor whose bodyguard I had been the night before he died. We crossed the river, following a route I navigated nightly before the Irish Brigade attack on German defences to the north. We passed through San Salvo which had been a German strongpoint in the autumn of 1943 and then went on to Cassalbordino. It was at this place that General Montgomery gave me 5,000 Gallaher’s Blues for my E Company riflemen. On a hill overlooking the Sangro was the Commonwealth Graves cemetery. We found the grave of Major O’Connor and many others, including Sergeant Hugh Donaghy MM, an old companion and an E Company friend. After displaying extraordinary valour, Hugh had been posted to the intelligence platoon for the Adriatic campaign. This was normally a far safer number than being a platoon sergeant in a fighting unit like E Company. The war did not spare him and he died on the Sangro. Leaving this sad reminder of the battles of the Adriatic, we passed close to the swampy area where my clapped-out Jeep nightly refused to budge until pushed by a small and very frightened quarter bloke, the nickname for a quartermaster sergeant.”
“We stayed at the Setto Belli Hotel and dined with the family that owned it. Next morning, we proceeded north along the beautiful coastal road and lunched on the promenade at Giulianova. After that was Ancona but we avoided Pesaro and Rimini. Our next stops were Modena, Carpi and Mantua (Mantova) where we were able to go to Mass and look around the old city. It was terribly wet, so we moved on to Verona and then Trento (Trent), the site of great councils of the Catholic Church at the end of the 16th century that launched the counter-reformation. After Adige, we crossed into Austria and stayed in Sterzing. At our hotel, I started to sketch the mountains in the fading light. This work was not the start of a magnificent portfolio. The oil-painting set I had received as a retirement present has seldom been used. I should have asked for water-colours. We made for Innsbruck and toured the city, which was picturesque. Taking the route crossing the border at the Scharnitz Pass, we came to Oberammagau. After a couple of hours, we passed into Unterammagau and along the romantic route towards Augsburg. It was past 6pm when we arrived at Stuttgart and we pushed on to Karlsruhe, which I had last seen some 40 years before. The next day, we halted at Zweibrucken and had our lunch by the Moselle. Crossing the river, we aimed for Trier (Treves) but arrived at Bitburg by mistake. The American forces were much in evidence, so we happily took a diversion and discovered a wonderful gasthaus in Brimingen. In the bar, we quickly made friends with the host and the few regulars. We treated each other and it was obvious that mutual respect prevailed. Like the places in Italy and Austria, most people we met wanted our friendship. We passed through Luxembourg and made our way through the Ardennes and to Bastogne, which we had visited many times during our visits to Waterloo. We were virtually on home territory. We passed on to Namur and Quatre Bras, the site of the preliminary clash between English and French troops before the decisive battle south of Waterloo in 1815. At Ostend, we boarded the ferry and made our way home. We had travelled 3,200 miles in about 19 days. It was a holiday of a lifetime. We loved Europe and it became obvious, as we progressed, that Europe, or at least its people, loved us.”
There were to be many further adventures. Another trip to Minneapolis, a journey to Tunisia with his daughter Catherine and her future husband Roger Gibbons, and to Dubai to visit Richard who was working as a finance manager with BT. Ted wrote a journal of their three weeks in the UAE and he could hardly conceal his wonderment at the adventure of visiting all seven emirates. For a period of successive years from 1996 to 2000, Ted, Pat and Richard joined together with Marian, her husband Phil and young daughter Taylor on trips to Ireland, Italy, Japan, Cornwall and US/Canada. During these trips, Phil ran the Dublin marathon, and the Venice marathon. The challenge of cross cultural experiences were clear on one occasion when Ted tried to handle chop sticks as a modified knife and fork. The week before their 51st wedding anniversary in October 1997, Pat and Ted stood in St Peter’s Square in Rome to receive once more the blessing of Pope John Paul II. In June 1999, they attended the wedding of Gerard to his second wife Maria at St Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Tufnell Park in north London. In July of the same year, all his children and grandchildren gathered at St Anthony’s church for the wedding of Kirsten McLain, Marian’s eldest daughter, to Rick Romanin, an Australian from Melbourne. In blazing sunshine, the wedding party enjoyed a glorious wedding reception and breakfast at Stoke Poges House.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Pat and Ted saw in the new millennium in the company of family members. Sitting up into the early hours, Ted led singing of traditional folk songs. In 2002, Pat and Ted took a week’s holiday in Cyprus with some of their family. That winter, they stayed at the home of Maria’s sister Teresa and her husband Frank in Culmore near Derry. Standing on the walls of Derry which had been unsuccessfully besieged by the army of King James II in 1689, Pat and Ted peered down on the Bogside, site of killings and other tragedies during the troubles including Bloody Sunday in January 1972. In the summer of 2003, there was another holiday in Wales. On a lovely August day, they travelled to St David’s Cathedral in Pembroke which Ted had first seen as a soldier in 1941 and visited again as a Scout leader in 1962. In the spring of 2007 at Bernard and Linda’s home, Pat and Ted for the first time met their three great-grandchildren: Jack and Lauren from Australia and Owen from the US who had flown with their parents to visit England.
Ted had suffered a minor stroke in 1991 and spent weeks in hospital and convalescence. He recovered, but never fully, and the stroke permanently affected his ability to walk. The degeneration was slow, but by the summer of 2005 it was obvious he needed permanent help. Pat and Ted were by then living in sheltered housing in Slough, and Ted moved into Oxford House on the outskirts of Slough at the end of that year. It had been found by Bernard and Linda who also organised for Pat to find a comfortable apartment in a sheltered community in Farnham Royal near St Anthony’s. Increasingly frail, Ted fell gravely ill in the spring of 2006, but he recovered against many expectations.
Retirement is a phase of life full of mixed emotions. The toils of work are over, but the mind invariably turns to the past rather than the future. Ted had made good use of his time since 1984, but still suffered regrets about what he might have achieved if only he had the opportunities, the support and the time. But that was not just true for him. It’s true for everyone. Pat, ever the pragmatist, would attempt to lighten Ted’s darker moments by reminding him that he might have been killed during the war.
It was a statement that Ted could hardly dispute.
In fact, Ted’s first close encounter with death had come at his moment of birth on 28 February 1919, two months before the due date. He had survived but his twin did not. His parents’ landlady Mrs Baker had noted Ted’s condition during the first months of his life and declared: ‘He is looking at the angels. You will never raise him!’ Ted confounded that forecast and many subsequent ones by refusing to do what was predicted and opting instead for what he believed was right.
Life is the most precious of all gifts. Ted loved life and was never complacent about what he had been given, something denied his lost twin and so many others he had known and loved. It was the least they deserved.
People born around the same time as Pat and Ted were members of what is now referred to as “The Greatest Generation” in recognition of the resilience and courage so many of them displayed. Their lives were among the most eventful in history. But they paid a huge price. Almost 300,000 Britons died in the World War II, twice that number suffered lasting physical harm and the majority were psychologically-scarred by the conflict. The careers and living standards of Pat and Ted were disrupted to an extent that none in contemporary Britain will ever experience. They were born during the slump that followed World War I, entered the labour force in the depths of the Great Depression, left their jobs to fight and then returned to work, in Ted’s case seven years later, often on lower real pay and in the same positions they had before a war none of them wanted or deserved. They faced shortages of affordable housing and had to help pay off the debts Britain incurred during the World War II. Their vacations were short and holidays were modest. They rarely took time off for sickness, were invariably cheerful and hated grumbling. Their pensions were modest and many, in their old age, wondered if the modern world and its excesses were worth the sacrifices they made.
Ted O’Sullivan had a remarkable range of talents, some of them largely unknown to people who were not close to him. His facility in French, German and Italian was, however, often exceeded by his desire to communicate with everyone from France, Germany and Italy he ever met. He was numerically competent, a capacity that made it possible to be an excellent small business manager. Ted was extremely well-read and would metaphorically devour half a dozen books a week. To the amazement of listeners, he would reach into his memory and pluck out a relevant classic poem and there was a lovely moment in the 1990s when he stood on a London Bridge and recited, in full and with relish, William Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge.
On one occasion, when he was almost 80, Ted was challenged to name the Shakespeare play that a passage selected from the bard’s complete work was read from. He got most of them right.
More than once he was heard to intone lines from Mark Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” It probably struck a chord.
Ted was drilled in some of the most celebrated works of sacred music when he was a choir boy at Corpus Christi in the 1920s and 1930s. He loved great operatic arias and thoroughly enjoyed the festival of London Welsh choirs at the Albert Hall in 2002 where Gerard was in the bass section.
Ted adored being tested in general knowledge and was a formidably participative viewer of Mastermind, the BBC television quiz show. A walk through the countryside would invariable prompt a lecture on geology and history. Ted was eternally curious and wanted to learn as much as he could. He was also generous in sharing the knowledge he acquired in a conversational mode for which he was well-known. Talking was the means by which developed his thoughts and he could do it for hours.
In an era where money appears to matter more than anything else and merit is measured by the size of your house, the newness of your car, the expense of your holiday and the scale of your investments, Ted might have appeared to have been unsuccessful. He had practically no personal belongings, though he liked to look smart, and his car was always second-hand. Holidays were carefully-budgeted. Pat and Ted bought a house, their council home in Slough, late in life. All this was at least partly by choice.
Ted was an idealist who placed little value on material things. Having six children, devoting the majority of his spare time to voluntary work, going to college and living on a student grant for three years in his middle years and becoming a primary school teacher is not a combination from which multi-millionaires are made.
But fate also played a part. Ted was born into a large and, by 21st century standards, poor family. Having an Irish name and being Catholic was a distinct disadvantage in London in the years before 1939, but his talents secured a scholarship to a decent school and a respectable job. If there had been no war, there is no telling the heights Ted – smart, efficient, hard-working and sociable — might have attained in the retail industry. If he had stayed in the army after 1946, an opportunity that was offered and rejected for marriage and family, he would have been commissioned and might have ended his career as a regimental commander or higher, though Pat noted that he might well have died in the Korean War. If he had taken his family to Australia, as he planned in the 1950s, a new range of possibilities would have opened up in a society where merit mattered more than social position. If he had become a teacher earlier, he would have definitely been a headmaster.
But if Ted had been solely concerned with his own interests, then his attainments and legacy would have been infinitely smaller, though his bank balance would have been substantially larger.
He followed the injunction in the wonderful prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola that begins Chapter 5: to serve, to give, to fight and to labour and to seek no reward. There was no gap, as there so often is, between what Ted believed and what he did.
There is one more story to tell.
On their trip to France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium in 1985, Pat and Ted had gone to see Europe. But there was special reason for the trip. Ted was on a quest to find the London Irish Riflemen he had left behind as he records in his memoirs.
“We left Rome and made our way southward along Route 6 to Cassino which the Romans called the Via Casselina. It still was a beautiful road and soon I remembered some of the names. We eventually saw Monte Cairo rising on the horizon. As we got closer, Monte Cassino came into view with the beautiful white monastery on top. The ruins that I remembered had been cleared years before and the monastery had been restored in all its glory. In the Rapido valley, close to the town of Cassino which I last saw as a desolate ruin, was the British and Commonwealth Cemetery. There rested 5,000 young men from many countries. Another 4,000 without graves were commemorated on the memorial. They included Colonel Goff, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles who was preparing our assault on the Gustav Line when a German bombardment took his life on 15 May 1944. And there were the names of many others I remembered and some I had forgot. I wanted to go to the monastery but Pat was too upset at the youth of the soldiers buried or commemorated. I was so moved, I reloaded a used film and many of the photographs were double printed.”
Ted searched for the graves of three of his closest E Company friends.
There was Corporal Eddie O’Reilly MM, who had died on the morning of 16 May amid a hail of nebelwerfers. Nearby was Gerry Keegan, another MM who was killed by shells six days later aged 21. And there was Sergeant Eddie Mayo, MM, inspiring leader and hero, who fell with O’Reilly on that triumphant but terrible day.
The motto of the London Irish Rifles is Quis Separabit. It means Who Will Separate Us?
It is not a question.
It’s a statement of eternal loyalty.
Ted had found Eddie Mayo and his beloved comrades in the Liri Valley.
But they had never really been lost.
They’d been with him all the time.
And they will be with him forever.